MACON, Ga. (AP) — Donald Chase and his father farm 1,600 acres in Macon County, and if proposed immigration rules being considered by Georgia lawmakers go into effect, Chase and lot of farmers are worried it will cost them more than time and money.
Some farmers say it could put them out of business.
While the immigration rules intended to stem undocumented workers would affect many private employers, agriculture is the state's largest industry — valued at more than $11.3 billion in 2009 — and would be one of the hardest hit.
At the heart of House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 40, as originally written, is that employers will be required to use E-Verify — a federal online employment verification program — to confirm the legal status of employees to work in this country. It would not apply to farmers who use the H-2A program, sometimes referred to as the federal guest worker program, which allows farmers to fill temporary jobs with non-U.S. citizen workers.
E-Verify, authorized in 1996, is administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service and compares information from an employee's Form I-9 — Employment Eligibility Verification — to data from U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records to confirm employment eligibility.
Although currently a voluntary program in most states, E-Verify is mandatory for employers with federal contracts or subcontracts that contain the Federal Acquisition Regulation E-Verify clause.
If undocumented workers are knowingly employed, employers could be fined or serve time in jail.
"The whole idea is it puts the burden on us as employers to police the whole system when this is a federal issue," Chase said. "Besides putting an undue burden on the employer, it puts agriculture at a huge disadvantage. I don't want to be locked up."
Chase Farms Inc. raises peanuts and corn and has a poultry operation. Recently, Chase was spraying a field of winter rye off Pine Level Road near Montezuma to prepare the field for planting corn in a few weeks. Nearby, a crew was working on an irrigation system.
When Chase hires Hispanic workers to work on the farm, he asks for proof that they are in this country legally and he withholds all required taxes and Social Security based on the law, he said. Immigration laws have many exceptions and are complicated to follow, he said.
"If they want to send them all back to Mexico, then send them all back to Mexico," Chase said. "If they want to provide some tool for citizenship, I'm OK with that."
Rodney Dawson, who farms about 1,500 acres of peanuts and 5,000 acres of cotton in Pulaski and Wilcox counties, said he uses eight to 12 immigrants, mostly for the cotton harvest. He does not go through the H-2A program because he only needs the workers for up to 10 weeks.
Dawson is concerned about having to use E-Verify and fears it will keep immigrants — even legal ones — from working here.
"I don't know where we'll find the workers," he said. "You can't find people from here who are interested in the type of work (immigrants) will do for us. ... When it's 100 degrees, they don't mind working."
Dawson said he supports something that would keep people from entering the country illegally.
"But we need some type of system that lets immigrants come into this country to work, because we need them," he said.
Legislators discuss farm worker programs
Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, said during a House Rural Caucus discussion that agriculture and small business in the state needed a "W-Verify" — a play on E-Verify — as a way to check people who are willing to work on farms.
"If we had a list of those people, I'd like to get it because we're trying to find them every day," Tolar said.
Tolar elaborated that agriculture is not just peach fields and poultry farms; it's a bigger web that includes industry and services like cotton ginners, peanut mills, and agricultural retail and financing. All of that ultimately depends on workers under the sun.
Tolar said HB 87, authored by Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, is a good bill.
"We're just having disagreement on this one particular issue" of E-Verify, Tolar said. "If you're hiring someone without an I-9, you're in violation of federal law. And if you're already in violation of federal law, E-Verify is not going to do anything to affect you. "
He acknowledged that it is possible to get legal labor under the agricultural guest worker H-2A visa program, which requires employers to provide transport, housing, at least $9.11 per hour, and worker's compensation insurance. By Tolar's calculation, that drives labor costs from somewhere between $7.50 and roughly $9 per hour to $13.50 per hour and requires a pre-order with the federal government. About 20 farms in the state do that, he said.
Tolar said federal programs that help employers hire temporary workers are "essential," but added that only the federal government can change them.
The jobs, "honestly, they're not all that desirable," he said. But the industry is becoming more dependent on the dexterity of human hands in vegetable fields that are taking over machine-harvestable commodities like peanuts and cotton.
"We have a very difficult process of getting workers now because they don't show up," Tolar said. "And the ones that do show up, we got to run through an extra hurdle? That's why we disagree with this."
Jon Huffmaster, legislative director for the Georgia Farm Bureau, said at the same meeting that E-Verify is too burdensome for farmers. He passed out copies of the 82-page user manual to prove his point.
If E-Verify says a person might not have their papers, the worker has 18 working days to settle the issue with the federal government, Huffmaster said. In the meantime, the employee stays at work.
"You as the employer have to go back and forth and check E-Verify, he said. "It's not like they contact you. You have to go to the website and log on and check each case for yourself. "
Huffmaster conceded the program is probably doable for any company big enough to have a human resources department, but "for small businesses and for farmers, we just believe it's going to be a more cumbersome thing than a lot of people tend to think."
Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville, opined in the ensuing discussion that there is a difference between people who move to a specific place versus who she called "true" migrant workers, who follow the harvest from Florida to the Great Lakes in a season.
"We need some sort of permit for true migrant workers," Houston said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.